I thought this was the perfect time to interview Lamar Giles since these are for many students the last days of summer. I’m so glad he was available! Here, we discuss his latest books, The Last Day of Summer and Spin; inclusive writing and the pains of middle school.
EC: When you were in middle school, were you the kind of young person who didn’t want summer to end or the kind who couldn’t wait for school to begin?
LG: I didn’t want summer to end. A lot of that was for the obvious reasons—long hot days of play, and reading, and general fun. Also, I didn’t have a great time in middle school. I was small and quiet… that didn’t go over well with some of the larger, louder children, to say the least. Summer was a much-needed break from what felt more like running a gauntlet than an educational experience most of the time. So, you can probably see how Otto and Sheed in Last Last Day are wish fulfillment on several levels.
EC: How sure were you that you could make one day last an entire book?
LG: I was confident I could float the one-day story for the whole book because real time became irrelevant once some key figures popped up. In that regard, the length of the day was never an issue. More concerning, how to fix it? That was the fun and intimidating part. I shouldn’t have been too worried with the Legendary Alston Boys on the case. LOL!
EC: Your main characters in Last Day of Summer, Otto and Sheed, are two young Black boys who are cousins as well as geniuses. You have several non-traditional families in the book as well as characters of various shapes, sizes and identities. These diversities exist without being issues and without feeling like they are there to meet a quota. What advice do you give to those who want to write more inclusive stories, but aren’t sure how to let it be authentic?
LG: What I do may not be advice that fits all (or even most) writers, because I’m attempting to fill a hollow space inside a young Lamar thirty years too late. As I mentioned before, Otto and Sheed are wish fulfillment for me. With all the fantastic elements in the book—magic cameras, time travel—the biggest fantasy element that a lot of people don’t see right away is the concept that four (Otto, Sheed, Wiki and Leen) smart black children are revered in their small southern town. What sometimes gets flagged as effortless inclusivity from me, is me writing about the actual spaces I Iived in that were outright ignored in children’s scifi/fantasy/horror/mystery (the genres I love) for most of my life. The families you see in my books are the families I know and am a part of. Most of my inclusive work involves placing black heroes in situations and settings where they can and should exist yet haven’t always been allowed to because some publishing gatekeeper found the base concept of the black hero more absurd than something like a time-freezing camera.
So, for the writer who wants to be inclusive, I’d say resist the urge to shoehorn in a culture or community you’re not familiar with just because you think you need to check the diversity box. I’ve felt that pressure at times, too, and realized early in my drafting that it was a mistake to try and force diversity for the sake of diversity…you’ll skirt dangerously close to being a culture vulture, mining other people’s experiences for your own gain. Maybe, instead, consider the aspects of the communities you are familiar with that haven’t been included in a ton of literature. Find a void you can fill with your own experience and observations. That doesn’t mean you have to write something homogenous if you don’t have a ton of experience outside of your own spaces, it just means you’re thinking deeply about the things you’ve observed and processed prior to the need to put it in a book.
EC: What books do you think Otto and Sheed would be reading? I’m assuming they’re readers!
LG: Definitely The Phantom Tollbooth. Books by Tracey Baptiste, Kekla Magoon, Jason Reynolds, Rita Williams-Garcia, Walter Dean Myers, Varian Johnson, Ron Smith, Kwame Mbalia, and comic books…lots and lots of comic books.
EC: There are some really complex themes beneath the fun and humor of Last Day of Summer. The serious and the comical all come from the way you humanized time. What process did you use to develop these characters?
LG: There was a lot of pre-planning in this book. More so than any other book I’ve done, because I knew I’d want to personify time in a lot of different ways. The simplest breakdown in the beginning was the story had to go like this: Otto and Sheed would get tricked into freezing time, they’d have to deal the with effects of a time freeze, then they needed to fix it. Once that foundation was set, it became about stretching that story across a classic story structure (Freytag’s Pyramid, for example) and seeding in settings/action to keep the pages turning. I needed to keep the boys on the move, and since most of the town was frozen, I needed to decide who’d make for the most interesting interactions for them. After that, it became an exercise in listing as may time idioms as I could (and there are a lot). With that list, I decided what the personified version of the idiom would be like, then it got simple…I only needed to decide if/when Otto and Sheed would meet that idiom. With any character interactions, you know you’re in a good place when the conversations are so suited to the characters, that you can tell which lines of dialogue belong to who without any dialogue tags (Otto said, Father Time said) and I felt that a lot in the drafting of this book, so the planning paid off.
EC: Please tell me this is going to be a series.
LG: Oh yes. I’m literally putting the finishing touches on Book 2 after I complete this interview (seriously, it’s the next thing on today’s to do list). That should be out in Fall 2020. Beyond that, I want to do a third Otto and Sheed book, then spin the Epic Ellison Girls off into their own series. I have a long-range vision for the weird world these kids live in, and I’m hoping the publisher sees the same potential I do.
You also released Spin this year. I have it in one of my TBR piles. What can you tell me to make me want to move it up to the top?
LG: Spin is simultaneously a murder mystery and a love letter to hip-hop/R&B. It’s about enemies Kya and Fuse who are tasked with solving the murder of their semi-famous friend Paris (aka DJ ParSec) by her scary powerful fandom known as #ParSecNation. It’s fast-paced, told through three alternating POVs, and will make you feel all the feelings. And while I’d certainly recommend the text version if that’s what you already have, I can’t say enough good things about the stellar performances on the audiobook.
Where to find Lamar on social media
Where to find Lamar in real life
- 8/31 Decatur Book Festival, Decatur, GA
- 9/13 His Hideous Heart Event, Fountain Bookstore in conjunction with the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, Richmond, VA
- 9/21 Brooklyn Book Festival, Brooklyn, NY